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Zach Ertz working out at the NovaCare Complex. Photos Courtesy Philadelphia Eagles

As the world adapts to a new way of life, the Eagles organization has designed a world inside Philadelphia’s NovaCare Complex where players, coaches and staff can begin their
season – and also stay healthy. Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro gives us a look at this new kind of training camp, complete with masks, social distancing and testing. Good news is there’s one more thing: football.

Carson Wentz works out during training camp

Where there was once a locker room with side-by-side lock­ers and a game lounge and barbershop for the play­ers, there is now a physically distanced room with 6 feet between lockers spilling into the recreation space. Where there was once a 9,000-square-foot weight room, there are now 2 additional workout areas built outside. Where there was once cubicles housing an entire marketing department, there is now a meeting room for players, with space between each chair.

A cafeteria that housed any kind of food imaginable with an a la carte approach and plenty of seating for players, coaches and staff now features grab-and-go meals, no seating indoors and a set of players-only climate-controlled tents outside with plenty of physical distancing. Coaches and staff eat at their desks. Players eat outdoors.
There are hand-hygiene stations through­­out the building and directional signage every few steps.

And wearing masks in the building at all times is mandatory.

The NovaCare Com­­plex at Broad and Pattison Streets in South Philadelphia opened in 2001 as a state-of-the-art training facility and corporate headquarters for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Today, you can hardly recognize the joint.

“We have worked for months and months to make this a safe working environment for everyone here,” said Eagles’ director of sports medicine Tom Hunkele. “It’s been a massive effort all with the intention of having players and coaches and our staff stay healthy for the 2020 football season. This project, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Nobody has. That’s the way it is during a global pandemic, and the sports world has had to adjust like all of us. From a business perspective, the Eagles closed the doors of the Nova­Care Complex in mid-March and conducted the NFL’s free-agency period, the NFL Draft and a virtual offseason program away from the building. Training Camp began – with new rules everywhere, including no preseason games and only 14 padded practices that started on August 17 – as the league hopes to reach the middle of September safely and on course to have a full regular season.

An organization with nearly 200 full-time employees, not including players and coaches, the Eagles have continued with most of their staff members working from home, just like the rest of corporate America. Those permitted into the building are broken into 3 tiers – Tier 1 is for players, coaches and the medical staff working directly with players. Tier 2 is for football operations and some team media who don’t come into direct contact with the players. Tier 3 is for other necessary operations employees who are there for building support, field maintenance, IT work and, in the case of this reporter, media work for the team. My access in Tier 3 allows me to enter a designated doorway on the south side of the building, walk down a hallway into my makeshift office, access a broadcast studio and, when I need to use the bathroom, walk back outside to temporary restrooms set up in the parking lot (they’re really nice, though!).

 

Players and coaches were tested every day through mid-August and every other day thereafter (I am tested once per week in Tier 3). The Eagles opened Training Camp in late July with 3 players on the active/ COVID-19 list (linebacker Nate Gerry and offensive linemen Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata). In the first couple of days of August, head coach Doug Pederson contracted the virus and was sent to his home in South Jersey to quarantine. He returned to the NovaCare Complex 10 days later.

 

 

 

The process begins each morning when those in any tier receive a text message that links to a questionnaire. Once the questionnaire, asking if the participant has been in any risky situations in the last 10 days, is answered with no red flags, the player/coach/staff member receives a QR code that grants them access to the NovaCare Complex parking lot.

“Once you come into the parking lot, you’re going to see that we have a big, white pop-up drive-thru tent station. Everybody coming in for a daily test will enter through that tent, go through the nasal swab PCR test. It takes 2 minutes. The crew from BioReference Lab (the NFL’s centralized testing laboratories) has been fantastic and has been so great to work with. It’s been a phenomenal process,” says Tom Hunkele, the Eagles’ director of sports medicine.

“Once you’ve done that,” he says, “you park your car, walk toward the building and you’ll notice these other white tents by the entrance that we’ve separated out – player entrance, Tier 1 and 2 entrance, Tier 3 entrance. At those entrances, you scan your QR code. Then you’ll stand in front of a thermal camera that will give you your temperature. If your temperature is below 100.4 and you have the QR code, you can enter the building. Everything is touchless, automated, and as you go into the facility, you pick up the Kinexon contact tracer, which tracks movement and location. Then you get on your way, starting your day like a normal day.

“I’ve had a high level of confidence, for sure. Our medical staff has been in there throughout this entire time, taking care of the individuals we needed to take care of. Those who had surgery and those who had injuries, that kind of doesn’t go away,”

Hunkele adds. “We’ve seen these protocols, these measures, develop as the organization has vetted different processes, looked at the science, and followed CDC guidelines. I can say with extreme confidence that I’m very proud of being part of the team, and getting it up and running. I feel our facility, and what we’re going to offer our staff and players, it’s safer than any other place they could be.”

Of course, there is also the issue of what the players are doing away from the NovaCare Complex, but that’s a story for another day. The NFL, unlike the NBA and NHL, are not having their players in a “bubble.” Players are free to come and go as they normally would. The league has expanded active rosters from 53 players to 55 and practice squads from 12 players to 16. Positive tests are expected to happen, and when they do, a player must have 10 days pass, or have 2 negative tests within a 5-day span to return to their facilities – and teams will have to rely on the deep
reserve list.

The goal is to get to the start of the regular season. The Eagles begin at Washington on September 13. Can the league make it all the way through January and into February for the Super Bowl?

“It’s going to take everyone to be committed to this. Every player, coach and
person in this organization,” Pederson says. “One of my themes this offseason has been ‘trust.’ We have to trust ourselves and we have to trust each other to do the right things 100 percent of the time. It is going to be difficult. There is no way around that. This virus has no prejudice. Everyone is at risk. So, we’re making sure that guys wear their masks in the building at all times. They have to be vigilant with their hand hygiene and physical distancing.”

“We’re here to win as a team,” he says. “Working together, we are going to win together.”

Everyone’s fingers are crossed. The rules are in place for training camps across the league. The regular season is going to be a different story, one that won’t be written in ink until just before the games begin. Travel, testing and all of the rules and regulations remain a work in progress.


 

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro has covered every Eagles game since 1987 and is seen and heard throughout the year on television, radio and Eagles coverage everywhere. You can hear his Eagles Live Podcast on iTunes.

September 2020
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